He’s behind the Mall’s patriotic concerts

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Barbara Ruben

Without Jerry Colbert, there would be no crowds of hundreds of thousands on the National Mall, no swelling strings of the National Symphony Orchestra in the al fresco concerts broadcast live to millions of homes on PBS, no roster of celebrities celebrating the country’s most patriotic holidays.

Colbert is the founder and executive producer of both the Memorial Day and Capitol Fourth concerts for PBS. He’s responsible for everything from lining up an impressive array of stars for the stage, to coordinating myriad layers of security, to wrangling funds to keep the concerts beaming live through PBS stations across the country.

It all started 35 years ago. Colbert, who was already producing pieces for PBS, heard that the National Symphony Orchestra would be playing its first concert on the lawn of the Capitol for the Fourth of July.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great event for the country?’ It’s become a blessing and an institution,” said Colbert, who is 73 and lives in Bethesda, Md. Eight years after the first July 4th concert, the inaugural Memorial Day show was performed.

Highly rated

The shows are hugely popular, both consistently ranking in the top four PBS primetime shows broadcast each year.

Last year, “A Capitol Fourth” was the second-most popular show (only outranked by “Downton Abbey”), and the “National Memorial Concert” was number four. In fact, last year’s July 4th concert beat NBC’s coverage of Fourth of July festivities in New York.

“I felt pretty good about that, that a show on public television can beat NBC,” Colbert said.

Colbert spends the entire year working on the shows. “We’re constantly out there begging — that’s one big challenge,” he said of the annual search for funds from PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Park Service and private donors.

Another challenge is working through the labyrinth of permits and security issues, since so many players are involved.

“You’ve got the Capitol Police, the various Congressional oversight committees, Park Service police, PBS, National Symphony, Kennedy Center, the five military services, the DC cops. The list goes on.”

Colbert said he hopes that viewers can find solace in the Memorial Day show. “I have a Biblical phrase from Isaiah that basically says, ‘Soothe the broken hearted and help those who mourn.’ I think that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We get a tremendous response from people, because someone is remembering their loved ones and praising them.”

Colbert recalled the story of one couple who watched a Memorial Day concert that focused on Korean War veterans. One woman wrote to Colbert saying that, although they had been married for 50 years, her husband had never spoken about his experiences in the war.

“They stayed up all night, and he told her the whole story. They went through two pots of coffee as he told her about his harrowing adventures. She wrote us a thank-you note at dawn saying how much it had meant to him and to her, and how relaxed he was now,” Colbert said.

During another show, actor Forest Whitaker talked about a young veteran in the audience with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

“The young man [whose story had just been told] came up after the show and grabbed me and gave me a big hug. He said, ‘You know, this is like Christmas for me. I’ve been through so much. All of a sudden Colin Powell is giving me a hug, and Forest Whitaker is hugging me and thanking me.’ It was very moving.”

Celebrating the Fourth

Unlike the often sober and respectful tone of the Memorial Day concerts, those on the Fourth of July are “a big party for our nation,” Colbert said. This year will feature Tony Bergeron, Smokey Robinson, the Broadway cast ofOn Your Feet, Sutton Foster and Kenny Loggins, among other celebrities.

Among Colbert’s special memories: “Ray Charles came and did “America the Beautiful” on the millennium and blew it away. As he was singing, we had the fireworks, and it was a real moment that you’ll never forget,” he recalled.

Another year, the skies opened up with a torrential downpour during a concert that featured the Pointer Sisters. They performed holding umbrellas, but still got drenched.

“I think their dresses actually shrank they got so wet,” Colbert laughed. “Because of it, the authorities were able to give us enough money to get a new band shell, because the one we had was so small it didn’t cover the performers. What a wild day that was.”

Colbert’s son Michael has worked with him as a producer for 15 years in their company called Capital Concerts. While the elder Colbert isn’t ready for retirement, he’s cut back his frenetic pace in coordinating the concerts, giving more responsibility to his son.

But Colbert has invested so much of himself in the concerts for so long, he just can’t see stepping away entirely.

“Everybody feels this is really substantive. So much of the stuff coming out of Hollywood is just show business or commercial. The Grammys are selling music, and the Academy Awards are promoting movies,” he said.

“We’re doing something for the country you couldn’t do on a commercial network. We all feel pretty good about it.”